Thursday, August 1, 2013

Food Log: Ciabatta

Made a double recipe of ciabatta with wheat germ and olive oil from Jeffrey Hamelman's Bread. Started with a poolish at 100% hydration.

Poolish looked great. Rose for about 18 hours (more than 12 - 16 suggested), with a little bit of starter added to yeast and flour.

Dough was likely over-hydrated. I've never made ciabatta and knew the dough should be moist. After mixing was over, re-mixed a bit to incorporate 1/2-cup (or so) flour.

Initial rise slated for 3 hours. Accidentally added 4 additional hours due to errands. Recovered dough from counter, threw out small amount on floor.

**Read shaping directions for ciabatta before shaping. They are unusual, and you will have to start over from the start if you don't.**

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Food log: Pizza

Made pizza per KA Flour's recipe for pizza crust made from leftover starter. Added a sprig of rosemary + chopped basil to dough.

Cheese: Shredded mozzarella with a little Cheese Guy stuff mixed in (S-- did the cheese)

Sauce: Newman's Own something-or-other

 Toppings: mushrooms, green peppers, capers, onion, eggplant fried in oil.

Final thoughts: Could have used more cheese. I really like green peppers on pizza.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Future lives of the little boomers

Our faith community has been experiencing something of a baby boom recently – one that we have contributed to with the recent birth of J—. There are many positive aspects to suddenly having babies rain down upon one’s peer group, especially when you are intentionally a part of that trend.

One less favorable outcome to this sudden and abrupt lowering of the mean age of congregants is the sudden interest that some folks seem to take in the marriage prospects of the under-two set. I, as an involved new parent, might have thoughts like, “Hooray, he found his hand!” (something I look forward to thinking, any day now). There always seems to be someone in the room though, who looks at all the babies and decides to get an early jump on the wedding planning!

I really realized how prevalent this match-making was recently, when a baby-loving  woman came into the room, carrying someone else’s newborn. She explained that she had been allowed to bring the baby so long as she took care to follow one rule. “No dates. Friends are allowed, but no dating the other babies.”

Sometimes, it is hard to maintain the appropriately polite smile and noncommittal response when somebody decides that Evelyn should marry Yankl or Dassi should marry Dov. (I would be hard-pressed to come up with fake names that are more noteworthy than the names these kids already have, but I enjoy trying.) Why do I get annoyed by the match-making? It’s hard to say. I don’t think I’m offended on the babies’ behalf. I might just be feeling unreasonably perturbed because of the statistical unlikelyhood of any of these babies growing up to marry any other of these babies.

What I really want to say to the match-makers is, “How many couples do you know who have known each other since they were children?” Though I don’t have the statistics to prove it, I’d wager that college sweethearts make up a smaller proportion of married couples than they used to, let alone high school sweethearts. Let alone kids who learned how to crawl together.

It’s very exciting that most of J—’s future friends have parents who are settled in this neighborhood. Many—if not most—of them will grow up together. One day they will sneak cookies before the service ends, and shortly thereafter (in fast-paced parent time) will be asking one another to school dances.

(I may not expect any of these kids to marry each other, but I’m willing to bet money that they will date within their circle, in increasingly unexpected pairings, throughout their teenaged years.)

And then, when it’s all said and done, I look forward to the day when they will all come home from college or trade school, apprenticeship or yeshiva, to gather on someone’s back porch with a few bottles of bitter melon soda or raw cider or whatever the cool kids drink in the early 30’s. I look forward to the conversations they will have, reliving the ups and downs of their childhood together, until someone leaves to spend time with his girl- or boyfriend, who is in town for just one night over the holiday. Then everyone will go their separate ways, though they will always keep in touch.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Rothko baby blanket

For the past few months, as I worked on knitting a sweater, I spent quite a bit of time considering my next yarn-related project. (One has a lot of free thinking time when one's hands are busy with a regular and uncomplicated knitting and purling sequence.) I decided to move on to baby blankets and, more to the point, came to the decision that it would be a great idea to make a series of blankets in the style of Mark Rothko paintings.

When I explained this at work, someone asked "who's Rothko?" and someone else astutely answered, "He's one of those modern artists who throws up a big block of color on a canvas and leaves you thinking, 'Do people really pay money for this?'"

I used to feel the same way, but through the influence of a Rothko-loving friend and a few years of thought, I've mellowed and perhaps even come to like Rothko's style. If nothing else, he seems particularly suited, among artists, to have his work converted into baby blanket form. After some time spent looking over his various works, I decided that my first blanket would be based on this:

1) It's square, which means I can crochet in the round. I like to crochet in the round.
2) The shapes are extremely symmetrical, which means minimal bother with moving one color into the collapsed side of another.
3) I had enough of both colors on hand, so I could start immediately.

After I began, and had gone through most of my first skein of dusky plum cotton yarn, I did discover a couple of cons as well.

1) Rothko made almost no other square paintings, so while my blanket will be based on a Rothko, it will not be the most iconic of Rothkos.
2) This particular painting was one of four made for commission for the Four Seasons dining room in NYC in the late 1950's, a group known collectively as the Seagram Murals. Rothko's goal with the paintings was, according to a contemporary article in Harper's Magazine, to "ruin the appetite of every son of a b**** who ever eats in that room." Charming.

Still, S---'s mystified reaction to that quote tells me that artistic sentiments have shifted a little in this country since the late 1950's. In any case, I have a feeling that these well-to-do socialites would have lost their appetites moreso because they would spend all of lunch trying to figure out how this qualified as art, rather than because it was inherently ugly. I suspect that the blanket form of the design will not lead to any lost appetites, particularly not in this day and age.

Something New on the Internet?!

Through my online explorations, I discovered something truly startling. If Google search results are to be believed, my plan to make a Rothko baby blanket is... wait for it... a relatively original idea! I have found exactly one other Rothko blanket, available for viewing here. I will point out that that one is adult-sized, and according to the information I have found, it hangs in an art gallery and is not for general use.

I found a few other entertaining riffs on Rothko, though -

Christopher Niemann, author of the Abstract City blog at the New York Times, considered a pixelated Rothko tile wall in his bathroom when trying to choose a new and exciting look.

The Salt blog at NPR has a story called "Mark Rice-ko," about a chef who dyed rice with natural food dyes and then made Rothkos out of her colored ingredients. I have a feeling that the article should be about the process of dyeing rice, as the Rothko angle feels like as much of a "why bother?" as some people might consider the process of putting squares of color on canvas in the first place. The story really falls apart at the end, when the chef makes coconut rice out of her "paintings," and with all the colors mixed together the result is extremely ugly brownish green rice that "tastes the same."

My favorite find so far is definitely these Rothko cookies, which look fantastic and would be fun to eat. They would certainly be a tasty thing to snack on while I'm crocheting my baby blanket.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

What I learned about mochi while on jury duty

A few weeks ago, I was in the throes of mochi curiosity while spending an otherwise unremarkable day at jury duty. With long hours, wifi and an urge to learn as much as possible about mochi, here is what I knew by the end of the day.


Mochi, or glutinous rice, is a low-yield crop. Because in the olden days farming led to little excess, mochi first entered Japanese culture as a food for the gods. Mochi cakes were used as offerings in Shinto shrines.

Shinto, or “the way of the gods,” is a pantheist religion and one of the few entirely native Japanese traditions (ie, formed without foreign, particularly Chinese, influence). Last summer, a new friend made a very interesting point about Shinto. Although Shinto has a broad array of minor deities, it isn’t an iconographic religion. At my favorite shrine, dedicated to the goddess Inari, you won’t find a single image of the goddess herself. You will instead see images of foxes, the goddess’s messengers, but they are not symbols of devotion. In most shrines, the holiest object – which only the priests are likely to know anything about – is probably a rusted sword or a bronze mirror with some association to the shrine’s patron divinity. Thus, though the Shinto universe is full of gods, you shouldn't expect to see many statues of them on altars.

(Contrarywise, Japanese Buddhism is nontheistic but loaded with iconography. Buddhas here, Buddhas there, and bodhisattvas clumped together by the dozens.)

Many Shinto goddesses (and perhaps some gods? or perhaps not?) keep mirrors as their most sacred objects. The sun goddess Amaterasu once refused to shine, and the other gods used her own reflection as part of a trick to bring her back to the celestial plane. For whatever reason, mirrors are a powerful divine symbol in Shinto.


Because Shinto has its connection with mirrors, and because mochi started its history as a Shinto offering, the most iconic form of mochi is the kagami (mirror) mochi. This is a New Years decoration in which two different-sized discs of mochi are piled atop each other (a larger one on the bottom, a smaller one above), topped with a Satsuma orange.

I plan to make a kagami mochi later today, and will post a picture soon. In the meantime, feel free to do an image search on Google. Because the internet is for cats, my favorite kagami mochi search results are the ones that show a fat cat with a Satsuma orange balanced on its head.

You are likely to see this three-tiered mochi creation in shrines a well as in alcoves or entryways of the homes of families celebrating the New Years in Japan. The idea is to leave the mochi decoration out through the New Years celebration (traditionally, seven days) and then to eat it. I would imagine though that by the seventh day of the New Year, most traditional Japanese households are pretty sick of eating mochi.

As noted, mochi started out as a just-for-gods food. Some time around the Heian Era (Tale of Genji times), rice production had improved to the level that it became possible for the nobility to share in this divine ambrosia. During New Years celebrations, at least. Over time, mochi consumption expanded to the wealthy classes and eventually became accessible to everyone. Also, over time, mochi shifted from an exclusively New Years food to a generally available consumable, usually offered as a major ingredient in sweets.


There are many traditions, rituals and foods associated with the Japanese New Year. Most are Shinto in origin, and quite home-grown. However, the Chinese zodiac plays a huge role in the new year’s iconography (2013 is the year of the snake), and, to throw one more foreign kink in the system, the new year begins on January first. (That is to say, about six weeks before the year of the snake begins on the Chinese calendar.) 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Making mafe because my sister is moving to Africa

My sister has joined the Peace Corps, and is moving to Senegal this March. Besides envy and pride, I also feel a great deal of curiosity. What is Senegal like? I don’t know anything about the country, except that it is on the west coast of Africa and borders the Gambia, which is where the action begins in Alex Haley’s classic Roots.

This curiosity meant that I was fascinated when, a couple months ago, I was looking through a new cookbook and found a tasty-looking Senegalese recipe. The cookbook was Seductions of Rice, and the recipe was peanut stew with lamb, otherwise known as mafe.

This recipe called for about two pounds of lamb shoulder. Conveniently, I have started trying to “move stock” in our freezer, largely by thinking really hard about the fact that I should be pushing the meat more. We have one big annual purchase of red meat, which had arrived recently. The problem was that we were by no means out of meat from last year, and now there is no room for my ice cream in the freezer – let alone mochi, extra loaves of bread and extra space for the “you never know” incidentals that might be better off frozen.

I have not been very good at getting the meat out of the freezer, in large part because I rarely feel like cooking or eating meat. (Hence, the large supply of over-one-year-old meat.) So, once I got it into my head that I wanted to make mafe, I ran with the idea. S— was more than happy to defrost a lamb shoulder.

A nice thing about our mafe recipe is that, despite the English name of “peanut stew with lamb,” it’s a very veggie-heavy dish. Also, it calls for okra. The full veggie complement is pictured below: sweet potato, carrots, tomatoes, okra, onion, hot pepper, along with tomato paste, peanut butter and vegetable stock (hanging out in the juice bottle, left).

Parsnips, a tomatillo and a shallot joined the recipe, though the book didn’t ask them to. We also invited along coriander, cloves, white pepper and, in happy inspiration, a dollop of Marmite mixed in with the peanut butter for additional depth.

We started by browning the lamb, which had been cut into bite-sized pieces. To this we added the alliums, and later the stock and root vegetables. Tomatoes, tomato paste, okra and habanero came next, and all simmered for a while along with the peanut butter and Marmite. The lamb turned quite pink, and was tender and lovely. We accompanied the stew with rice cooked with lemongrass and ginger.

In the end, it was delicious (and fed us for a solid week!). I have no idea how authentic our mafe was, though perhaps I can make it for my sister in a couple of years and ask for her opinion. I briefly considered making it for her when she visits us this spring, en route to Dakar. After thinking over that possibility for about ten seconds, I determined that she would likely prefer very American food during her last domestic days, rather than getting an early start on her two years of eating Senegalese fare.

S— declared the mafe to be a very good use of okra. It would seem he doesn't share my opinion that any stewed okra is delicious. It would also seem that I haven’t made much okra in the past few years, if I am only now learning his opinion of the stuff. The mafe was warm, filling, and habanero-ed up to a high degree of spicy. I hope my sister enjoys the food in Senegal as much as we enjoyed making it ourselves!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Mochi: The Solution

Somehow, I heard of the mochi-tsuki-ki a few weeks ago. I don’t remember how this happened. A mochi-tsuki-ki is a mochi making machine, which cooks mochi and then pounds it into putty. At the end, the mochi desirer is left with a nice, hot pile of perfectly pounded mochi, sometimes even cut into individual pieces. This machine is amazing!

(Not only amazing, the mochi-tsuki-ki is also precedent-setting. Apparently, it was the inspiration for Western bread making machines. I don’t know whether one could make bread in a mochi-tsuki-ki, but it would seem that the reverse is quite impossible. The mixing action necessary to make mochi is far beyond the capabilities of a bread machine.)

The conclusion was clear; I needed a mochi maker. It was the absolute only way to bring kosher mochi into the house. There were just a few problems.

Mochi makers are big. They don’t come in different sizes; all mochi makers appear to be ten-cup-capable machines. Mochi makers are more powerful than bread makers, and also at least as big.

They are also pricey – over $300. That is a lot of money for a single-function machine that one might use two or three times a year.

Still, if there’s no other way to make mochi, and if never going to get past my (ten years running) obsession with wagashi, then it seemed that a mochi maker was the only way to move forward.

As I pondered the pros and cons of purchasing a machine that had a whole lot of strong pros and strong cons involved, I continued searching the internet for any other way that I could make mochi. Or even just find mochi that I could bring into our kitchen.

Finally, mochi salvation came in the form of a post called “Homemade mochi the modern way” from the JustHungry blog

This blog has some great Japanese food ideas on it. The author writes food articles for the Japan Times, and on her blog she will often post her articles, followed by an addendum for readers outside of Japan, to discuss how to find or substitute the ingredients that are easily available only in Japan.

The author of JustHungry reports success at making mochi with her KitchenAid, using the dough hook on hot mochi for about 15 minutes. I’d recommend looking at her pictures, since my experience looked about the same (and I couldn’t maintain non-sticky hands, so I kept my camera away).

The outcome was… mochi! Successful, real mochi, made at home with a machine I already have!

It did cool by the end of its 15 minutes of kneading, which made it extremely hard to work with. Next time, I am going to try positioning a wide metal bowl underneath the main bowl of the food processer, and I will fill that bowl with boiling water about halfway through the process. Hopefully, this will leave me with more manageable mochi.

Manageable mochi, manageable mochi. I don’t think that such a creature exists.

My success at mochi made it clear that I need to celebrate an upcoming holiday, New Years Day, in proper Japanese style. That means more mochi coming soon, as well as a slew of other exciting foods.